We must unmuzzle scientists

I’ve been concerned with the muzzling of scientists since I first became a Member of Parliament. I’ve been pleased to speak at rallies, write opinion pieces and advocate for science and science funding as the Liberal Party’s critic for science and technology. I have followed the muzzling issue closely, speaking with academics, public servants and former colleagues – many of whom are scientists.

New-York-Times-editorial-slams-Harpers-muzzling-scientists

I therefore read Andrew Leach’s recent Maclean’s article “Un-muzzle the scientists? Not so fast” with interest.

Unfortunately, it seems that Dr. Leach has misunderstood how the government is muzzling our scientists. Leach writes that there is a problem with “allowing public servants to be openly critical of government decisions,” and he would be right, if this were what was happening.

Instead, we have stories like that of Kristi Miller, a scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, who published an article about sockeye salmon in the prestigious journal Science and was then told by officials that she was forbidden from speaking to the media about her ground-breaking findings. There’s also Scott Dallimore, a geologist from Natural Resources, who published an article in Nature about a massive flood 13,000 years ago, who was also prohibited from speaking publicly about his research. Neither of these scientists was commenting on public policy, they were simply trying to explain their research to a broader audience. These are experts in their fields, publishing in internationally-renowned journals, and we should be applauding their work rather than trying to limit it to a small audience.

Dr. Leach also suggests that the there are two main arguments in favour of un-muzzling scientists. First, he says, is the notion that research that is publicly-funded should be available to the public. I would go further and say that research, especially policy-relevant research, should be rendered accessible to the public so that the public can properly understand and evaluate it. As an opposition Member of Parliament, my role is to understand government policy decisions. If the basis for making policy decisions – the evidence – is difficult to access, I can’t do my job.

Dr. Leach sees the notion that the government is “hiding” evidence that undermines its agenda as the second argument in favour of un-muzzling scientists. But, again, this implies that scientists want to speak out on policy, instead of simply explaining their research as clearly as possible. The most high-profile case of a public servant not speaking against a government policy is the former Chief Statistician, Munir Sheikh, who resigned after then-Industry Minister Tony Clement claimed that Statistics Canada had recommended canceling the long-form census in favour of a voluntary survey. But, as Alex Himmlefarb notes, “This was not a public servant substituting his own judgment for that of the government or in any way being disloyal… in the traditions of public service, Munir was and continues to be publicly silent about his advice… his was about the integrity of Statistics Canada and of the public service. The decision to replace the long form census with a voluntary version put the Chief Statistician in a difficult position. The way the decision was handled put him in an impossible position.”

Dr. Leach’s piece does provoke a good question: when can it be fairly claimed that a policy is based on the best available science? As he points out, a policy is never just based on science because all sorts of other cost and benefit considerations necessarily come into play when a policy decision is made. A policy is based on the best available science if all the relevant scientific knowledge is clearly and objectively presented to and understood by policy-makers. Who are the policy makers? Surely the general public and their elected representatives, mostly non-scientists, should be included. And that is precisely why government scientists should be allowed to speak freely about their research to the public. They should be free to speak directly, and through journalists.

“Muzzling scientists” epitomizes the way that Prime Minister Harper’s Conservative government has treated science for the common good. It goes far beyond preventing government scientists from speaking freely about their research. It describes an ideology resulting in government cutbacks to scientific research which jeopardize our safety, our environment and our economy. It describes the damage done to Canada’s reputation on the world stage.

I disagree with Leach’s premises and conclusions, though we do agree on one point: this should be an important issue for Canadians when they go to the polls to elect the next government.

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